I’m all for it
- Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII by John Cornwall
Viking, 430 pp, £20.00, September 1999, ISBN 0 670 87620 8
When I was a child we were taught to sing a hymn whose last lines were:
God Bless the Pope
Later, when I became an altar boy, and accordingly more irreverent, I learned an alternative ending:
God Bless the Pope
Whichever way you sang it, you knew that you were singing about Pius XII. The nuns who taught us were transported by enthusiasm for His Holiness, sometimes into states of rapture. He was not just the Vicar of Christ, he was the 13th Apostle, a living saint, the greatest Pope of all. They were clearly in love with him.
The Christian Brothers who took me in hand from the age of nine felt the same way but, being great whippers and floggers, they empathised more with his stern authority, those hard unsmiling eyes behind the glasses; in all the thousands of pictures of Pius thrust before us I don’t remember a single smile. This fitted well enough with the easily observed fact that a Catholic education was no laughing matter. Like most others, I got flogged two or three times a week, was taught that the earth was 4000 years old (Darwin had it all wrong) and, when we played Birkenhead School at rugby, was reminded that Protestants like them had only been prevented relatively recently from burning people like us at the stake. Accordingly we (a) had to win and (b) should leave no valuables in the changing room. The austere, ascetic Pius XII was the presiding spirit in this grim theocratic world.
Later we had other Popes who, we were told, were also jolly good, but even the warm feeling about John XXIII never approached the devotional cult around Pius XII. There was a sense of real surprise that he wasn’t beatified and canonised as soon as he died. The nuns had told us that he couldn’t officially be declared a saint while he was alive but once he was dead he would be sanctified more or less automatically. The Christian Brothers, who took out the strain of their enforced celibacy, not just in the endless floggings they administered to us but in sporting machismo, agreed: Pius XII was the no-contest champ when it came to holiness, the Mike Tyson of the whole blessed business – canonisation would be achieved on a first-round knockout.
John Cornwell gained access to key archives in Rome by claiming that he wished to exonerate Eugenio Pacelli – he became Pope in 1939 – from charges of complaisance and connivance in the face of mass terror and extermination. This has been seen as disingenuous, and some feel Cornwell has gone over the top in his clear execration of Pacelli. There is a measure of truth in this. His assertion that, by working to achieve a religious concordat with Serbia in 1914, Pacelli helped pave the way for the First World War seems absurd. Any Catholic diplomat (Pacelli was then undersecretary of state in the Vatican) would have done the same and he could hardly be blamed for the secular frenzy which followed. But Cornwell has delved to much effect – his book surpasses all others on the subject – and the evidence is always honestly presented, allowing one to establish clear areas of agreement and disagreement with the author.
The thesis is simple enough. Pacelli was born into a caste of lay Vatican lawyers who had served the Popes since 1819. He was never a normal boy – but godly, smug, effeminate, delicate and priggish, captivated by the ethic and romance of asceticism. Solitary and highly strung, he was ‘born a priest’ and ordained at 23. Singled out at an early age for preferment, he seems to have known from his thirties on that he was likely to become Pope, and as self-confidence grew into certainty, he developed a feline narcissism, a self-conscious and often exhibitionist piety. As a precocious Papal nuncio in Germany, he had the bad luck to run headlong into the terror of the 1919 Bavarian Soviet republic; the young Bolsheviks who threatened and appalled him were for the most part Jews. He never entirely recovered, and from then on nursed a pathological hatred of Bolshevism – which he identified with Jews. To understand how important that experience was, one must recall that Germany, like America now, provided the Holy See with more funds than all the other nations of the world put together. Jewish Bolshevism had threatened not just Pacelli’s person, but the heart and sinews of the Church. And in any case, Pacelli came to feel, the two were pretty much the same.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 22 No. 10 · 18 May 2000
I am not a practising Catholic and do not consider myself a Defender of the Faith, but I attended Catholic schools for 11 years and two of my sons spent a total of eight years at a Christian Brothers preparatory school. In my own experience in the 1930s and 1940s I recall precisely one instance of a teacher striking a boy. At my sons’ Christian Brothers school in the 1960s neither was ever struck by a teacher and neither recalls any of their classmates being so punished. R.W. Johnson says he was ‘flogged two or three times a week’ at the Christian Brothers school he attended (LRB, 30 March). Flog means ‘to beat with a whip or rod’, presumably on the back or bum. If the youthful Johnson was indeed assaulted at that rate it means that in the course of a school year he would have been beaten about a hundred times, which seems more Dickensian than Dickens and surely must have left the little Johnson tush in irreparable tatters. And since he seems to have attended this hellhole of a school for more than a year, one wonders how the badly battered boy ever managed to survive, let alone sit at a keyboard to tell the tale.
Tuckahoe, New York
Vol. 22 No. 11 · 1 June 2000
Unlike Robert Creamer (Letters, 18 May), I do consider myself a practising Catholic. But also unlike him, I have no personal experience of an education at the hands of the Christian Brothers, whom he seeks to exonerate from the criticisms of abuse by R.W. Johnson. However, there is now sufficient evidence amassed in Ireland (following a similar experience in Australia) for the Government to have established a judicial commission to inquire into allegations of sexual and physical abuse by Christian Brothers, among other religious orders, on a scale rarely, if ever, witnessed elsewhere. The inquiry is to consider evidence dating from 1940 to the present day, although the industrial schools, where most of the abuse allegedly took place, were closed in 1971 after a previous, highly critical Government inquiry. (As early as 1940 Fr Thomas Flanagan, the founder of the American Boys’ Town, referred to the industrial schools as ‘Ireland’s concentration camps for children’.) The Christian Brothers ran about half the schools, the other half being in the hands of other orders, mainly the Sisters of Mercy.
The Government’s action, which includes changes in the law and a counselling service costing four million Irish pounds a year, has been prompted in part by the number of clergy who have recently appeared before the courts charged with abuse (2 per cent of Ireland’s clerics have been found guilty). There were, of course, many sisters and brothers teaching in the schools who were motivated only by a true vocation. Why they did not speak out remains to be uncovered, though it is possible that for many, what has been called the ‘learned helplessness’ of their religious training may have made it hard for them to do so.
Robert Creamer may be excused his incredulity about the incidence of floggings meted out by the Christian Brothers, but not the sneeriness that goes with it. The ‘strap’ – made of stitched leather, something over a foot long, a couple of inches or so wide and half an inch thick – was standard issue and went with the cassock. I don’t know why Creamer ‘presumes’ that flogging must be delivered to the back or the bum. You got it on the hands, usually four strokes at a time, at my Christian Brothers school in Liverpool in the 1950s. Not all the brothers were enthusiastic or severe floggers, but not even the most good-natured of them would have questioned the use of the strap as an instrument of discipline and a punishment for sin. For some it was the teaching aid of first resort and for others it must have satisfied another need entirely. You’d have been keeping your nose cleaner than I ever could not to be lashed the three or four times a week that R.W. Johnson reports. The single-lesson record was held by a lay teacher of Latin: 140 or so strokes among 26 boys inside 40 minutes. A truly exceptional performance, you might think, but not so exceptional that any notice was taken of it by anybody but us boys.
I, too, attended a Christian Brothers school: as a timid swot I was not often beaten. However, some of my classmates were flogged daily. ‘Flogged’ here means struck on the bottom with a chairleg, or struck on the hand with a leather strap. On one notable occasion, the two best maths students in our class were beaten for getting an answer wrong. When we proved to Brother Cyprian that his calculations were incorrect, he called up the other 22 students, and flogged them all as well. This was in the late 1960s.
I attended a tiny Roman Catholic school in a country town in the North of England, from 1937 for seven years. Many of us were beaten on the hand several times a week, not usually for specific sins but as a general disciplinary measure. Later in life I wondered whether things really could have been that bad. Then I met an old school friend who had been our teacher's pet, or so I thought. I'd got hardened to the regime but she had been so terrified of school that most mornings she wet her knickers at the prospect of the day ahead.
Robert Creamer seems to have been luckier in his experience of the Christian Brothers than me. All our Christian Brothers carried specially made leather straps with whalebone inside. These were about 18 inches long and were used to inflict a great deal of pain on one's hands (not bottom). In cold weather particularly, the pain could be quite awesome and sometimes one bled. Creamer's reckoning of a hundred strokes a year for me is probably about right. The Brothers were all lower-class Irish from, so to speak, a wife-beating culture and were generally Irish nationalists so you got beaten rather more if your name was Johnson rather than, say, Sheahan. Boys were flogged from the age of eight up and generally in front of the class – which, of course, made it tougher for the boy who cried or, sometimes, involuntarily wet himself. Occasionally the Brothers would strike pupils round the head, though this was not common and on a few occasions I saw boys kidney-punched. (I also had that happen to me.) In my final year a sixth-former who failed to attend a cricket practice was flogged, expelled and forbidden by the headmaster to enter the school to sit his A-levels, a punishment which would have blighted his career if the local mayor hadn't intervened.
Vol. 22 No. 12 · 22 June 2000
Conspicuously absent from Robert Creamer’s defence of the Christian Brothers (Letters, 18 May) was any indication of the continent on which he and his sons went to school. Perhaps they were fortunate enough not to go to schools run in England by the Irish Christian Brothers. My experience at one of them between 1949 and 1954 was pretty close to R.W. Johnson’s. It may be true that we were not ‘flogged’ in the dictionary definition of that term, but that is what we called the frequent beatings we received. I was once so badly hurt for passing a jar of jam to my younger brother that I had to be examined by a doctor.
Forest Hills, New York
The headmaster of my primary school in South Wales got his comeuppance when a boy fainted after being caned. His mother arrived at the school, brandishing a kitchen knife. Fifty years later I can still picture Mrs Hurford chasing Mr Sluman round and round the cloakroom.
Mouans Sartoux, France
Vol. 22 No. 14 · 20 July 2000
I attended a boys’ Catholic grammar school in South-East London during the 1970s. Boys were beaten regularly. Common implements used included straps (short and thick or long, thin and forked), canes (a boy’s finger was broken by one) and ‘slippers’ (usually gym shoes). Lengths of wood, table tennis bats and tennis rackets were used less frequently. On one occasion, a whole year (about 80 boys) were ‘slippered’. By the end of my first year my form teacher had hit every boy in my class except one, who was a haemophiliac. My partner attended a Catholic primary school in the same area. She and her schoolmates were regularly slapped or hit on various parts of their bodies.